Dr. Uma Naidoo is a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. Her internship was in a field that might seem strange to you at first: Nutritional Psychiatry.
She said that she believes in the cliché, "we are what we eat.” But in an article she wrote for the Fast Company website she emphasized that there’s another factor in this saying that we should consider.
"I always encourage people to take food awareness one step further," she wrote.
She said that we need to pay attention to how we eat.
According to Dr. Naimoo, when practicing mindfulness and developing judgment-free awareness, one can cultivate what she calls "physical intelligence,” a deep acquaintance with the body, its needs and how to improve its function. This way we sharpen our concentration and are more productive throughout the day.
Today, many people feel worn out and stressed, have difficulty concentrating and can’t function an entire day without suffering from "brain fog" and chronic fatigue. Dr. Naidoo explained that one major factor contributing to this negative phenomenon is increased consumption of simple sugars and caffeine. These items, as is well known, can raise energy in a short time but also create sudden drops as they’re absorbed in the body.
Also, undiagnosed allergies or sensitivities can lead to "brain haze.” Gluten, for example, is a well-known allergen, the sensitivity of which exists not only in celiac patients, but among many people, some of whom aren’t aware that they have a problem.
There are also other common problems that can contribute to the intensification of brain fog, such as overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine (SIBO), ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease.
However, many people will suffer from "mental fog" even if they have no sensitivity. In any case, a thorough check-up won’t hurt and can only help identify problems which you didn’t know affect you.
Conscious eating: A proven method to strengthen the brain
Meditation or mindfulness has entered the collective consciousness in recent years and is considered a sought-after tool by CEOs, entrepreneurs and Hollywood stars. Brain researchers, psychiatrists and doctors are constantly discovering new benefits of this simple practice, which may improve brain function and other aspects of health.
One interesting study conducted in the first months of coronavirus, when most people started working from home, found that a short meditation practice helped to strengthen brain function and improve work performance. And unlike what you may have thought, meditation doesn’t have to be done in the traditional way - sitting on a mat while practicing breathing.
In fact "conscious eating" is a simple and fun way to combine consciousness-raising exercises with the thing we love to do all the time: eat.
In this method, you need to really invest your attention and concentration in the whole process of purchasing the raw materials, cooking, eating and cleaning at the end. If throughout this process you leave your phone off, your senses open and your mind is focused, you’re already practicing meditation and improving the connection between the mind and the rest of the body.
“Conscious eating has a dual benefit,” Dr. Naidoo explained. “First of all, it allows us to be more attentive to the body and which foods it needs, when it’s really satiated and how the meal affects it for better or worse. At the same time, this focus makes it possible to strengthen mental abilities considerably, as evidenced by research on the subject.
It's all a matter of priorities
People tend to think that cake and coffee are the only things that can provide a "boost" of energy in difficult moments, but countless studies actually prove that there are so many other ways which are more efficient and healthier to achieve this result.
It's like if your head hurts, you can take a pill to soothe the pain, but it's even better to think about how to prevent the pain from coming back when the effect of the pill wears off.
In the context of "brain fog" for example, it’s more effective to think about ways to treat the two main factors that cause the unpleasant phenomenon: stress and lack of sleep.
Dr. Naidoo explained that when we prioritize activities that help reduce stress and fatigue throughout the day, in the long run we’ll have even excess available energy, which will reduce the need for sugar and caffeine.
The second step in this long-term planning is developing a daily menu that will support brain activity and boost energies. Such a menu includes healthy foods, which are rich in nutrients and help the body provide a stable level of energy throughout the day.
How do you build a menu that sharpens your mind?
To meet this important task, you must stop eating ultra-processed foods like manufactured cookies, sugary drinks, frozen pizzas, fast-food and more.
Also eat fewer foods that cause inflammation. Studies found these foods cause fatigue and difficulty concentrating after eating. This list includes processed meats, foods with lots of trans fat, oils that contain high amounts of omega 6 (canola, corn, sunflower and more), mayonnaise and beef.
So what should you eat?
Go for foods based on "lean" proteins, omega 3s and dietary fiber, as studies have shown that eating more of these components improves glycemic balance and enables the proliferation of good bacteria in the gut. This has a positive effect on concentration and alertness, and other important aspects of your health. Such a menu includes vegetables, berries, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, lentils, whole grains, ocean fish and chicken.
And if you find it difficult to stick to a really healthy diet, Dr. Naidoo has advice that may reassure you: “I always recommend the 80/20 rule. That is, 80% of the menu will be healthy food, while the remaining 20% will be made up of anything else you want to eat, even if it’s unhealthy.
“We all need some freedom in what we eat in order to make dietary changes that we can really maintain and stick with over time,” she said.